Pasta Improv

Everyone can enjoy putting a meal together on the spur-of-the-moment, especially if the pantry is stocked with pasta. Be it a hearty and satisfying meal of spaghetti, sausage, tomato sauce and oregano, or an exotic dish of radiatore, fennel, shrimp, and olives, a delicious dinner is just moments away if you let Pasta Improv take you by the hand.

If you can boil water, chop and stir, you can cook without a recipe! Let your on-hand ingredients set the parameters. Got some linguine and leftover chicken? Think Chinese and add garlic, ginger, soy sauce and whatever crunch vegetables you find in the crisper. Is there a box of macaroni and a few little chunks of cheese? Add oregano, olive oil, vinegar, cucumbers and tomatoes to make a Greek-style pasta salad. Does the fridge look nearly bare? How about a simple but classic dish of angel hair pasta with butter, garlic and herbs?

The possibilities are endless. As you experiment, you will come upon combinations that become favorites. With little more than the essentials, you can turn out meal after meal with surprisingly delicious results.

How to Use the Pasta Improv Chart
Cooking Without a Recipe

  1. Choose your pasta - available in lots of interesting shapes and sizes. You'll need four ounces uncooked pasta per person. In other words, 1 pound of dried pasta serves four people. Put a pot of water on to boil while you round up your other ingredients.
  2. Familiarize yourself with some of the possible pasta combinations suggested by the Pasta Improv format - basic or ethnic versions.
  3. Using the Pasta Improv chart as your guide, check your refrigerator and pantry for vegetables, cheese, meats or fish, sauces and flavoring ingredients. Using your preferences (or your family's), select ingredients that are compatible. Let your imagination be your guide.
  4. Follow the Pasta Improv format to make a delicious, unique meal.


  • Cheese, meats and fish can be combined and the amount added should be the TOTAL. For example, a recipe for four people using sausage and Parmesan cheese could incorporate 2-1/2 cups of sausage and a half cup of parmesan cheese, making a total of three cups (the maximum amount for four).
  • Unless you are confident that you will want the maximum amount of any ingredient, you may have better success if you add ingredients incrementally, tasting with each addition and then adjusting. Remember to taste, taste, taste, as you improvise.
  • Sauces can be combined. The amount added should be the TOTAL. For example, add a stronger flavored sauce, such as hoisin, to a milder sauce, such as broth, to pump up the flavor without overwhelming the dish. A recipe could use 1-3/4 cups broth and 1/4 cup hoisin, to make a total of two cups (the maximum for four). Or, sauces can be combined to create new flavors, such as a mixture of salsa and tomato sauce.
  • When choosing vegetables, consider canned, frozen, fresh or jarred ingredients.
  • Don't overlook the flavor combinations on the shelves at the grocery store, such as onion or roasted garlic flavored broth. Improvise with tartar sauce in place of mayonnaise, for example.
  • For PASTA SALADS transfer the pasta to a large serving bowl. Toss with additions such as vegetables, cooked flavorings, meats and cheeses. Toss with sauce and other flavoring ingredients. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.
  • For HOT PASTA DISHES, heat the sauce and stir into pasta. Toss with additions such as vegetables, meats and cheeses. Toss with flavoring ingredients, season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.
  • When substituting dried spices for fresh, reduce amount by two thirds.
  • When preparing a hot pasta dish, reserve about 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water and add it to the sauce.

Basic Improv (personalize to your tastes)
Serves 4

1 pound pasta
4 cups vegetables
2 - 3 cups cheese and/or meats and/or fish
1 - 2 cups sauce
1/4 - 1/2 cup flavoring ingredients - choose one, two or several
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

  1. Put the water on to boil.
  2. Gather all ingredients. Chop and blanche or saute vegetables that need it. Grate cheese if necessary. Cook and chop meats or fish if necessary. Cook flavoring ingredients that need it.
  3. Cook the pasta according to package directions. After cooking, rinse under cold water for pasta salads or simply drain for hot pasta dishes.

More Improv Recipes